Spencer Butte Park History

The native Calapuyian name for the butte was Champ-a te (sometimes spelled Cham-o-tee) which means a rattlesnake mountain. Little is known about what place the butte held in these people’s myths, traditions, and livelihoods.

The origins of our current name for this prominent local geographical feature are uncertain. The most common theory is that it was named after a Hudson Bay Company member, a young Englishman named Spencer. Some of the earliest recorded Europeans to visit the Willamette Valley were associated with the Hudson Bay Company, fur trappers who came to the west to make their fortunes in the early 1800’s. Evidently, Spencer left his party to climb the Butte alone and was killed by Indians. Another less popular theory is that the butte was named in 1845 as a compliment to John C. Spencer, the then Secretary of War, by Dr. Elijah White who was looking for an emigrant road to the eastern states.

By the 1850’s a few settlers had established themselves near the Butte and in the direction of Camas Swale. A road was surveyed and built in the 1850’s or 1860’s, for the convenience of these settlers. This early wagon road is now Willamette Street. A post office was established July 14, 1853, with Milton S. Riggs as postmaster. The post office was discontinued April 2, 1855.

Dr. Charles Church, who was prominent in the steamboat business on both the Willamette and Columbia Rivers around 1870, owned the Butte. Dr. Church’s daughter Lizzie, married a Dr. Ida Giese from Portland and they fell heir to the property.

On January 22, 1937, at the Eugene Park Commission meeting a committee was formed to make a detailed investigation into the possible purchase of Spencer Butte for the Park System. F. M. Wilkins, a former mayor of Eugene, a pioneer businessman of the city, and ninety years old, was the president of the commission at the time (an article found in the Spencer Butte file from the June 1980 issue The Countryman, gives history on Jasper Wilkins; how he relates is unclear).

The committee reported that 240 acres of the Butte property was owned by Lizzie Church and Ida Giese, while 40 acres on the west side was the estate of Alice M. Morse. The committee was prepared to act upon purchasing the property if a reasonable price (not to exceed $3,500) could be reached. Paul Giese, acting as agent for the Church-Giese acreage, was offering the property at $30 an acre. The park commission decided that for a down payment of $1,100, and the balance of $6,200 on very easy terms, the property could be secured. An attempt to raise the money through a bank loan was unsuccessful, so the committee decided to hold a dinner meeting in January of 1938. Representatives of outdoor interest groups were invited to get them familiar with the park system needs and of the urgent need of acquiring Spencer Butte. By the time this meeting was held, Giese was requiring the down payment of $1,100 within thirty days. It seems that there was another offer from a competing private party, who wanted to clear the trees and use the Butte to pasture goats. Robert Morse, who was acting as the representative for the Morse estate, had offered it at $1,100, with no down payment, and agreed to keep this option open until June. This allowed the Commission to totally concentrate on the Giese transaction.

At the meeting, the Eugene Register-Guard and the Eugene Daily News offered to carry on a publicity campaign acquainting the people of Eugene with the need for immediate action. Wayne Morse headed a committee of three, who were to carry on a campaign to raise money for the purchase. The campaign officially started on the thirteenth of January. The idea was to have no contributions larger than $5, in order to let everyone buy a piece of theButte. During the campaign, a series of articles on the Butte were run in the papers, ranging from its history and geology to its recreational potential and flora and fauna.

Several organizations approached the Park Commission to do benefit entertainments. The papers printed daily tallies of the contributions, and by January 23rd, less than half of the necessary funds were raised. Concern that the drive might ultimately fail, evidently was behind the January 28th promise from the Park Commission to return each donors money if it did.

Paul Giese dropped his offer to $6,000, which was $500 less than the logger’s offer, saying that it was his contribution to the campaign. Only $687 had come in by January 30th. On the final day the fund was short $103.09. At the last moment an elderly gentleman posted a $1,000 government bond to guarantee the fund. By February, with more than $1,100 in funds, the Park Commission made the down payment and the contract was signed for the Giese’s 240 acres. More than a thousand people had contributed from one cent to five dollars during the campaign.

A celebration dinner was held on February 10th, 1938, at which Wilkins proposed a resolution of thanks to the people of Eugene and especially the newspapers for their loyalty and generosity in raising the funds necessary for the first payment on the Spencer Butte Park site. This was adopted and each member was to receive a card of thanks. However there was still a large balance due on Giese’s contract, as well as the $1,100 due outright by June, on the Morse’s forty acres. Therefore it was arranged to get a levy measure put on the May 20th City primary ballot to cover these costs. Wilkins’ thoroughness and enthusiasm played a similarly shining part in this second publicity campaign of the year. In an article published by the Eugene Daily News, Wilkins was quoted as giving these two alternatives: a logged off road and ruined old landmark, or owned by the City of Eugene as a park for our people, generation after generation. Another quotation from a statement that Wilkins made was. ” Remember, Eugene boys and girls will be climbing Spencer Butte fifty and one hundred years from today, to be inspired by looking over a city built out to the very foot of the Butte.” The ballot measure passed by a vote of 3082 to 1940.

By the end of 1938, plans had been formulated for improvement, such as bridle paths and walks into and around Spencer Butte. Some of these plans were acted upon up into the early 1940’s. Virtually all development up to the early 1970’s occurred at this time.

In August of 1951, a radio announcer raised a brief flurry of controversy by complaining about hundreds of goats running wild on the Butte. They were mostly fugitives from area farmers’ and ranchers’ herds. A local stock-man estimated they had been on the Butte for better than thirty years. Butte residents pointed out that they were an asset as they kept Spencer Butte clear of underbrush, ate the poison oak, and drove off the rattlesnakes. The Butte was still primitive. At the time plans were being made for fire trails and setting up a plan for fire protection.

In 1957 a recreational path for foot, bicycle, and horse traffic was planned between 33rd Avenue and Hilyard, to the east park boundary. Douglas Kline and builder Frank Kinney contributed easements through their properties for it. The most notable occurrence of the 1950’s however, was another threat to Spencer Butte’s physical appearance. In May of 1958, the president of KEED radio station, Glenn Stadler, requested permission of the City Council to erect a TV tower on the Butte top. A furious public counterattack erupted when the council appeared to favor the request, which would have also included a service road. Stadler argued that few climbed Spencer Butte and these were mostly the young and the stalwart. It was learned though that in reality, many Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and people in their sixties climbed the Butte regularly. The Butte was climbed each weekend, even during the winter, the consensus being the view is enhanced if it is earned. This attitude, along with the fear of the potentially ruined view of the Butte from the city, compelled the Council’s denial of permission for the project. Parks and Recreation Superintendent, W. Riley Tex Matsler, got involved, making a brief study of alternative sites that met broadcast criteria, and came up with the Blanton Heights recommendation, which was accepted by TV proponents.

In March of 1959 Superintendent Matsler alerted the City Council to the possibility of an addition to Spencer Butte Park. Charles Emery and Mildred Ruby Pruett were interested in selling forty acres on the northwest side to add to the park. Department funds were insufficient however to make the purchase. The Council was opposed to putting forward any large amount of City funds for the purchase. It was not until the period of 1972-74, that the land was finally secured, and then only twenty acres were obtained for $75,000.

In 1960, through volunteer efforts, the old police pistol range was razed, including its buildings and fences. Also volunteers graded and graveled the parking lot and driveway, sprayed poison oak, and improved trails, with donated materials and a grader provided by Boy Scouts and construction contractors. In 1962, $12,000 was allocated to improve the trail to the top of Spencer Butte. Peace Corps trainees in Eugene did some of the trail upgrading on the west side.

An article in the Register Guard in June of 1964, called attention to the abuse of the Butte caused by motorcycles and four wheel drives. In 1970 a fire that shot up from private land on the south side seared many young firs and killed several of the trees along with other woody plants. The fire burned for four days and cost a considerable amount of money.

In 1976, the Butte was sustaining more than 20,000 annual visits. As many as 550 people would hike to the top each weekend under ideal conditions. Under the poorest weather conditions, forty or fifty people could be found at the summit. A study done in 1973 by nine University of Oregon landscape architecture design students focused on the precarious nature of Spencer Butte’s ecology. They noted that most people were unaware that this landmark is extremely fragile. Heavy use had compacted the soil and exposed tree roots. In some places the trail had been widened as much as thirty feet. Out of four trails to the top, the west side trail was the most intensively used. One hiker had used the trail for 56 years, claiming to not know of any other trails.

The Eugene Parks and Recreation Department published a pamphlet in March of 1976, entitled, The Spencer Butte Situation. At the end of the month Mayor Les Anderson, announced the start of a campaign to protect Spencer Butte from further ecological damage. $12,000 -$20,000 was budgeted for trail patching material (411 tons of columnar basalt rock and gravel), hand tools, and haulage to the Butte parking lot.

In mid May of 1976, the “Better the Butte” drive got underway with volunteer labor to lay a stone path four to ten feet wide, up an approximately 3,100-foot route to the summit. Volunteers were essential to the project, as the city could not afford enough firemen, let alone trail building crews. The plan called for some of the participating organizations to be trained in the work, in order to supervise the volunteers. A slogan coined by the department to inspire public participation was “Your Mountain Needs You.” Machinery had to be ruled out as it would rip up the hillside. Thus, twenty-nine volunteers moved several tons of rock in the initial construction session. As the summer progressed, hikers were encouraged to take up a couple of rocks each, on their ascents. Much was moved in this manner. Regular work parties were scheduled throughout the weeks and weekends, morning, afternoon and night. By September 29, ten thousand people-hours of work had been contributed since May. Roughly eighty-four tons of rock had been taken up from the parking lot. The trail going up to the southwest side was complete for about 1,000 feet. A viewpoint at the 1,500 foot line was the objective before the winter wet season set in. In areas where the trail was finished, some cut over trails had already begun to grow over. Among the groups that had helped were school children, Boy Scouts, Amazon Kiwanis Club, Hodads, Lore Ladies outdoor club, and the neighborhood Spencer Butte Improvement Association.

In 1978, CETA crews were involved in trail work and installing bathrooms. A well was drilled and a restroom building built near the main trail head parking on Willamette Street in 1979. The bathrooms burned down in a fire on January 1, 1993. The cause of the fire was believed to be the space heaters that had been left on in the bathrooms to prevent the pipes from freezing. Due to problems with vandalism in the past, the City decided not to replace the bathrooms with a permanent structure, and instead installed portable toilets in fenced enclosures.

In August of 1982, several of the trees on the east property line were found to have fir beetle damage. A meeting to inspect the diseased trees with the State Parks Forester and Forest Pathologist determined that the beetle would only affect the weak and dying trees, and would not spread to the strong and vigorous young trees.

Spencer Butte Park has been the recipient of two land donations. In 1991, Mr. Derek Jaros donated a 1.76 acre portion of his land, and in 2000 the City received 26 acres from the Brolin Company.

In the late 1990’s there were two trail improvement work parties sponsored by REI. Over 100 volunteers were present to perform significant upgrading of the worst sections.

 Much of this information was taken from an essay written by W. Patrick Workman, entitled Spencer Butte Park. Last update: 9/12/03